Sunday 31 October 2010

Waste–no more holes

One thing you soon learn about waste is that it is a complicated problem. And in Norfolk it is about to become a much more visible problem because in 2 years the last of hundreds of holes in the ground will be full. No more landfill – hurray! But what is the alternative?

A giant incinerator is planned to open near Kings Lynn to take waste from all of Norfolk. The good news is that a lot of the metal that currently rusts away in landfill will be recovered and that heat and power will be generated. Incinerators have had a bad press due to concerns about emissions but we are told those from a new plant are now much less than from older incinerators and are equivalent to a few miles of traffic on a motorway – exact figures vary according to the pollutant.

DSC01245Of course landfill has its own problems with emissions – the sites have to be managed for at least 60 years after closure and maybe much longer – though the engineer in charge of this site at Longwater thinks that people may well dig them up to recover metals at some point. My picture shows the hundreds of pipes that collect methane (burnt to produce electricity) and to manage the toxic water that leaches from the site. Constructing the site involves many layers of highly technical materials to stop the nasty stuff getting into our drinking water!


Inside the building, shown in the pic above, the contents of recycling bins are sorted – and a lot of it is done by hand. This man is picking PET bottles from a conveyor and throws them at a speed too fast for my camera to capture, into a chute – you can just make out a bottle in flight! His colleagues pick out the HPDE and the end results are these bales of plastic – the third mountain is the stuff they can’t identify and that is worth much less cash.

DSC01243Take a look at this video to see the whole process. It is a company promotion and it glosses over the huge problems caused by people putting the wrong stuff in the bins – putting cans into bags – squashing bottles etc.

DSC01251Of course some people can’t even put their recyclables into a bin at all. Yesterday I helped on our village litter pick and we picked up loads of lager and energy drink cans, cola bottles and take away food wrappers. Certain brands feature prominently. I urge you to support Bill Bryson and the CPRE’s campaign for a deposit scheme.

DSC01252And this is where it gets complicated because the recycling plant at Longwater relies on the profitable recovery of cans and bottles to provide an income. Take that away and then they may not be able to process paper which at times has no value at all.

I can only skim over these problems here but would be happy to help Elena to revive the waste group if there is a wider interest. In the short term groups like Wombling and Freegle can give items a new lease of life but I feel the long term solution requires communities to become much more self sufficient – to make things and produce food locally and in the process to become resilient. In the meantime I can only admire Erik’s example to us all!

Pics – Schematic of a waste incinerator, Longwater closed landfill, sorting plastic at NEWS, Richard with litter in Little Melton


  1. Incinerating vast amounts of waste in Norwich is totally incompatible with the transition to a post peak oil world. Mass burn incinerators like the one in your pretty picture are dependent on the residual waste containing large amounts of paper and plastic. They depend on a throwaway society that is just not possible anymore. All the carbon in the waste is instantly converted to carbon dioxide while generating far less electricity than our worst coal power station.

    A sustainable Norwich need to use less oil hungry resources, eliminate as much packaging and food waste as possible. We must keep organic matter separate from general waste so it can be safely composted or Aerobically digested and then used back on the land to replace chemical fertilizer.

    The waste incineration industry and some waste disposal officers are very keen to exaggerate how little landfill is left. Landfilling the wrong stuff is a dreadful waste as in burning it but you do have around 20 years non-inert landfill capacity left in Norfolk. On 2009 there was 474,000 tonnes landfilled and 8,803,000 cubic metres of void space remaining. (waste going to landfill has a density of around 1.25 tonne/m3)

    The solution is to have far less waste, very high recycling rates and very small plants to safely treat the tiny residual (and even extract more recycling).

    see Uk without incineration website

  2. What a lot of rubbish we've been writing this week! Great post John, though I'm not sure about that incineration plant. Transition King's Lynn were in fierce opposition to it, due to air pollution and health hazard concerns caused by dioxins and fly ash.

    Some good links on these subjects can be found on their blog (April 2)

    Anaerobic digestion is the way to go according to VC Cooke, a Waste Management company for rural South Norfolk and North Suffolk (who I heard talk last week).

    And one better Zero Waste . . . which if I remember was the original name for TN's Waste group. Time for a revivial I agree!

    With best wishes,


    31 October 2010 14:27

  3. Nice post John, and good to get a look inside a recycling plant.

    What a rich waste week it's been.

    By the way, if you click on Keith Kondakor's name at the top of the first comment you come to the UK Without Incineration website

  4. I started my post by saying that waste is complicated - which it is. The only opinion that I offered was in the final paragraph - which I stand by. The rest of the post was based on what I learnt at the Norfolk Waste Conference - I merely tried to report the situation as it is and can't possibly do justice to all the complexities of this issue in a blog post. I no more condone the building of an incinerator than I condone people throwing rubbish from their cars - which I also included a picture of.

    If people want to debate these issues in a rational way then I'm quite happy to help reconvene the waste group. In the meantime I'll get on with helping to run Freegle which has done a great deal to reduce items going to landfill.

  5. John, you were probably only quoting when you said "emissions [...] are equivalent to a few miles of traffic on a motorway" but can I point out that emissions are a rate (an amount per time) and a few miles of traffic on a motorway are an amount (and an incredibly vague one at that: how many miles? how much traffic? if we inhaled all of that, how long would it take to kill 50% of us?). We really need the numbers in these discussions to make up our minds which is the lesser of two evils (during the time it takes us to eliminate waste/upcycle everything).

  6. I really don't want to become a spokesman for the incinerator project - I had hoped that the words 'we are told' might be a clue! I *assume* that they take the average annual traffic on an average motorway which would give you an equivalent measure - of sorts. But I'm sure that there is a high standard deviation - stats was never my strong point.

    Please look at the 12:15 presentation at

    I have recently spent a lot of time trying to prevent the open incineration of fridges and cables by our local travellers, which they do in order to recover the metal. I'm not sure how much dioxin (gms/day/traveller) is emitted - but it is not something that I want to be downwind of.

  7. Thanks for the Wombling mention and link, John. I found your post interesting, and while the incinerator wouldn't be my first choice, neither is shooting the messenger! ;-)

    You are correct to say that Wombling is currently involved in short-term projects; the recycling/rehoming of items, though the training we deliver to business on developing their environmental policy is with a longer-term plan and ongoing support/monitoring. Not something they do to look good and increase green custom today, then forget about - I will be checking in!

    We'd be doing much more NOW but for limited resources. Difficult choices were made, we had a long list of equally important services we wanted to provide. However as these will be developed by myself, I can tell you that when we get to that stage, there will be a strong focus on the longer-term, with ambitious but realistic aims to increase sustainability and resilience in the community, Wombling encourages self-supporting communities.

    If the waste group regroups, I'm interested.

    Eco Treedweller

  8. Charlotte - the whole subject of waste is so complicated that it is difficult to make comments about disposal technologies on the blog.

    Local food production would remove the need for a lot of packaging and I'm just old enough to remember pre supermarket days when things like biscuits were sold from bulk tins in paper bags.

    It is not so long ago that we lived without so much waste - in fact 'dustbins' were once primarily for the disposal of ash from coal fires - hence the name! A 1950's dustbin had very little of what today's average bin contains. But you'r too young to remember that :)

  9. Inspite of rising population and more homes the total municpal solid waste in Norfolk has been falling from 442,404 tonnes in 2002/3 to 389,000 tonnes in 2009. The county is 7 years past peak waste! Of that another 20% should be easily prevented or reused. 70% of the remaining could easily be recycled or composted to leave around 90,000 tonnes for safe treatment.